a tag to “Masquerade”
Private Wylie Jasko and Private Bill Tripp approached the lines dragging their burden between them. They tried to keep the sergeant out of the dirt, but it was hard to lift him with one arm each, and hold their weapons in their other arms.
The sergeant had been semi-conscious when they found him and they had draped his arms around each of their shoulders, but now he was dead weight having passed out awhile back.
“You think he’s a…kraut?” Wylie asked between panting breaths.
“I sure hope not…hate to think…we went to all this…trouble for a…kraut,” Tripp answered.
The two had been on outpost duty. It was early evening, around 1900 and already good and dark. Tripp had heard a rustling in the bushes and had fired without warning. Not protocol, but he was jumpy. They’d been warned that there were infiltrators in this area. Lots of them. The outposts had been beefed up, two men to a post, ten posts around the perimeter of the CP and aid station. A lot of manpower just for guard duty.
Jasko stopped Tripp from firing again with a silent hand over his gun arm. They had shouted to the man they had almost killed, but had gotten little information. He claimed to be an American and he claimed to be hurt. Once they approached him, they could tell the latter was true. The former was still in question.
The sergeant had American dog tags that proclaimed him one C. Saunders, 227-06-22, blood type 0. Whether they were his or not, remained to be seen. He did have a hole in his leg. He had bled a lot and it looked as if he’d dragged himself for some distance. His pants were saturated with dampness, mud, blood and debris. They had picked him up to deliver him to the aid station. The guys there would have to straighten it all out. He was loosing a lot of blood, and they figured first things first.
“Stop foolin’ around, Jasko, now what’s the damn password?!” came the irate voice of Corporal Hicks, Jasko’s bunkmate. Hicks had blonde, curly hair and Jasko loved to give him no-end of grief about it.
“Okay, okay, don’t shoot. Blackbird.” Jasko and Tripp were already moving toward the camp perimeter, not waiting for the all-clear.
“Okay, come on in, you jackass,” Hicks called back. His partner on guard was Boles, but he didn’t say much. He was quiet, but stuck to Hicks like glue.
“We have a wounded man. Looks American, but we don’t know yet.”
Tripp was gasping for breath now. He stopped and released his hold on the sergeant. “I’m sorry, I just can’t…” The sergeant slid bonelessly to the ground.
Jasko lowered his half of the sergeant to the ground too, and rolled him on his side. The man was completely out of it.
“What you got there, Jasko?” Hicks had come up to see. “Say, looks like you caught a sergeant. You gonna keep him or throw him back?” He nudged Boles and winked.
“Shut up, Hicks,” Tripp was too winded to spar with the corporal.
“That’s ‘shut up, Corporal Hicks’ to you, Private.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Tripp breathing was becoming more regular and less ragged. “We gotta get this guy to the aid station. You think you could help out a little here, Hicks? We done carried him a half mile.”
Hicks and Boles were already moving forward and bent to lift the sergeant, “I reckon we can lend a hand. What’sa matter, Tripp, you forget to eat your Wheaties this morning?”
Tripp didn’t answer, except with his middle finger. Hicks and his silent partner lifted the sergeant and carried him between them the remaining two hundred yards to the hospital tent.
Doctor Joseph Gordon glanced up from the abscess he was lancing to see Hicks and Boles bringing in another wounded man. He sighed. The third one since he came on duty three hours ago. He gestured with his scalpel, “Put him in that corner bunk, I’ll get to him as soon as I can. What do you know about him?”
“He came up to one of our outposts. Looks like he’s dragged himself a ways. Got a hole in his leg and I only see one hole so I guess the bullet’s still in there.”
“Okay, get his boots and pants off willya? I’ll be done here in a minute.”
Boles glanced up at Hicks who sighed. “Dammit, I didn’t sign up for this…” Hicks muttered, but did as the doctor asked. Gordo wasn’t just a doctor, he was a captain.
After they had the boots and pants off, leaving the sergeant in his civvies, they covered him with a sheet and green, army-issue blanket and left the tent quickly before Gordo asked them to do anything else.
Gordon shook his head. He needed help, but he wanted men willing to be there. Hicks was a good soldier, but a lousy orderly. He’d manage with Del, but Lord it was gonna be a long night.
Gordon finished cleaning up the abscess on Private Hinkley’s foot, bandaged it, and washed his hands. He then moved over to the new arrival and stood looking down on him. The sergeant’s breathing was good, regular if a little rapid and shallow. He was pale and had obviously lost a lot of blood. Most of it was on the pants that lay in a heap on the floor.
Del Loder lumbered over to see what the doctor needed. Del was his only trained orderly. He was a simple soul, but he did what he was told and he did it well. Gordon would be lost without him.
“Yessir!” Del looked sympathetically at their new patient. “He looks a bit peak-ed, don’t he, Doc?”
“Yeah.” Gordon sat on the edge of the bed and pulled the blanket back. “He’s lost a lot of blood and he still has a bullet in his leg.
“I don’t think he’s from our company, Doc. I ain’t never seen him a-fore.”
“I know. I want you to get his name and serial number from his tags and get them over to the radio shack. Have them call battalion and see if they’re missing one of their boys.”
“You think he might be a kraut?”
Gordon rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I dunno. Could be. This sector’s crawlin’ with ‘em.” Gordon looked closely at the pale skin around the wound in the left thigh. No sign of powder burns. However this fella got shot, looks like he came by it honestly.”
When the doctor palpated the leg, the sergeant in question jumped. A small moan escaped and his eyes fluttered.
It took a few moments, but the sergeant managed to open his eyes just a slit. Watery blue eyes stared up at the man in the dirty white coat above him.
Experience had taught Saunders to be cautious. Don’t speak until spoken to when you find yourself somewhere you don’t know where you are or who you’re with.
“Sergeant, can you hear me?”
Saunders nodded slightly.
“I’m Doctor Gordon. We’re at the 325th CP and aid station. You managed to drag yourself to one of our outposts.”
“They shot at me,” he rasped.
“Yeah. Sorry ‘bout that. We’re a little jumpy around here. We’ve taken some bad casualties and had two infiltrators this week. We got ‘em, but not before they did some damage.” Gordon glanced up at Del who nodded agreement. Gordon silently gestured to Del who went to fetch what the doctor had wordlessly asked for.
Gordon smiled. “You’re not an infiltrator, are you?”
Saunders couldn’t tell if the doctor was joking or not. Either way, he didn’t answer, distracted as he was by the pain that shot through his leg when the good doctor squeezed, pushed and otherwise mauled his thigh. Saunders had a white-knuckle grip on the blanket. He couldn’t have answered if he’d wanted to.
“I have to get that bullet out of you. I don’t have any anesthesia left, but I can give you some morphine.” Del had silently come back with a tray of instruments and bandaging. Gordon reached for a syringe and popped it in Saunders’ other thigh before he could react. “What outfit you from, Sergeant?”
Saunders had been given morphine before, more times than he cared to count, and it was never fun. The feeling of floating and euphoria that some people found pleasant, was for him accompanied by a nausea and disorientation that he found distasteful. This time, he was too tired to care, too tired to protest and too tired to fight.
“The 361st, King company.” Saunders felt like he was slurring his words. He relaxed and could literally feel the warmth spread throughout his body. If he could keep from throwing up before he fell asleep, he would consider it a victory. His last thought before darkness overtook him was that if he threw up, he wondered if he’d be able to miss the bed this time, and hit the floor instead…
“King Two, out.” Hanley dropped the handset in the phone well and rubbed his hand over his tired face.
The stable that served as his command post was empty now. The men had moved on closer to the front. Cooper, Kanger and the German colonel had gone to the rear, back to battalion headquarters.
On receiving word that the ambulance never made it, Hanley sent Saunders to track down Kanger, the German infiltrator. “I never should have sent him alone,” he muttered through his hand.
The call he had just received was yet another report from battalion security- the MPs that patrolled the roads leading in and out. He had been in touch with them for hours. Earlier, one of their men had reported that the ambulance driver was dead, so was the colonel. Saunders had taken off cross-country after Kanger.
Hanley’s fist came down hard on his makeshift desk. “Dammit!” The waiting, the not knowing was eating on his last nerve.
The phone rang again. Hanley grabbed it with his sore hand, dropped it, and grabbed it again. “King Two, Hanley.”
“Hanley, Colonel Cobb. I think we found your boy.”
“Yup. Well, someone wearing his tags anyway.”
“Where is he, sir?”
“At the 325th, eleven miles southeast of your position.”
“Eleven miles?” Hanley did the mental calculations. They had to be either in kraut territory, or mighty close to it.
As if reading his mind, Cobb said, “They’re our most forward CP, Hanley. Right on the lines and pushing the boundaries. Has a top-notch medic team, too. If that’s Saunders out there, he’s in good hands.”
“Can I talk to them?”
“They only have a direct line to here. I can relay for you. Can you give me a description of Saunders?”
Hanley grinned and nodded.
Gordon took off his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. It was almost midnight. Most of the patients had settled down into drug-induced slumber. His newest patient, Saunders, if that was his name, had slept through having a bullet dug out of the deepest part of the meat of his thigh. Gordon knew that if Saunders hadn’t been so exhausted, the Morphine would never have been enough. They gave him two units of plasma. Now the only danger was infection. If he could avoid that, he’d be fine in a week or so.
Del came shuffling in and made a beeline for Saunders. Gordon followed him curiously. Del stood over the sleeping sergeant.
“What is it, Del? Did you hear back from battalion?”
“Yessir. Found his CO, Lieutenant Hanley. He sent a description.”
Quietly and with infinite care, Del lifted the blanket and took Saunders’ lax right hand in his and examined it.” Del let out an audible sigh of relief.
“What is it, Del?”
Gordon bent closer. The sergeant’s index finger was much smaller than the rest of the fingers on his right hand. Gordon nodded, “I see. It’s him?”
Del nodded silently and gently returned Saunders’ hand to where it had been resting on his chest. Del swiped a hand across his brow. “It’s him.”
“You better call his CO back. He’ll be worried.”
“Yessir.” Del turned and left the way he’d come. In twenty minutes, he was back. “Lieutenant Hanley’s comin’ in the morning. Wants to see for himself, I guess.”
Gordon nodded and glanced over at the sleeping sergeant. “Guess he’ll have quite a story to tell.”
Battalion cleared Hanley to leave at 0700. During the night, the lines had shifted. The forest between Hanley and the 325th had been contested, and the Americans had prevailed. There was always the danger of stragglers, but Hanley didn’t expect any trouble, and didn’t encounter any.
Dawn was breaking when he roared into the 325th CP compound. Hanley had never been one to observe road rules at the front, and today was no exception. He had driven the eleven miles of forest roads in record time. If any stragglers had been aiming for him, they would have had to be as fast and accurate as an Olympic skeet shooter.
He unfolded his long legs from the cramped vehicle and strode purposefully to the aid station. It was one of the most dilapidated, sorriest excuses for an army tent Hanley had ever seen. Camouflage netting hung from its central tent pole like Spanish moss from a swamp tree. The whole affair looked as if it had seen battle, bad weather and possibly an elephant stampede, but still stood in its odd, proud little way. The only identifying feature was a freshly hand-painted red cross in a white circle on a piece of wood propped by the entrance. It looked rustic, but lovingly rendered.
At this hour, the place was quiet, no staff milling around out front, no soldiers sitting outside to get some air. He pushed back the large tent flap and entered. Besides about eight patients lying in beds, there were only two men inside. The one in the white coat appeared to be the doctor, and Hanley noticed the captain’s bars on his collar.
He approached and saluted, “Good morning, sir. I’m Lieutenant Hanley from the…”
“Oh for cryin’ out loud, Hanley, drop the salute. I’m a doctor for God’s sake.” He turned and walked away. “C’mon, your boy is over here.”
The two men picked their way around beds toward the cot in the farthest corner where the other man that Hanley had spotted was now sitting with a white enamel pan in his lap.
As they drew closer, Hanley saw that the other man, a big strapping young man with a shaved head, was very gently sponging cool water on the forehead and neck of his wayward sergeant. On their approach, the young man stopped, picked up the pan with one hand, stood up and saluted. Hanley returned it without thinking, his eyes on the man in the bed.
He placed his helmet on the floor beside the bed and sat carefully down on the edge. “Saunders?”
“Uh, he’s not feeling so good this morning, sir.”
Hanley looked up at the young man, puzzled.
“Uh, Del, sir. PFC Delbert Loder, sir. I’m the one that sent the message last night.”
Hanley rose and extended his hand. “Glad to make your acquaintance, Loder. I appreciate you taking care of…”
“Oh, it’s just my job, sir. He sure is feelin’ mighty poorly.” Loder shook his head sympathetically.
Hanley’s concerned gaze returned to the sergeant. He noted the pale skin, the sweat that drenched his face, neck, and what part of his chest he could see.
Doctor Gordon cleared his throat. “Um, he developed a fever during the night, Lieutenant. I’m sure it’s nothing to be concerned about. Not terribly unusual in this type of wound.”
“Dirty. It was very dirty. The sergeant had dragged himself for, who knows how far to get here. We cleaned it out thoroughly and got the bullet out, of course. Well, this is just the body’s way of killin’ germs. Nothing to be concerned about.”
Gordon had seen it a hundred times before. In eighty percent of the cases, what he just told the lieutenant was true. It would only be if they were very unlucky that the sergeant would have more complications. The wound was clean now. They had flushed it repeatedly with peroxide and saline. It did not appear infected. Gordon was confident that this was just the body’s natural defenses kicking in.
“I see,” Hanley replied. He wanted very badly to believe what he had just been told. He sat back down on the edge of the bed. “Saunders, can you hear me?”
Saunders’ eyes flickered for a moment, closed again, and then opened, seeking out the face that went with the familiar voice. “Here, lieutenant.”
“Sure,” he said weakly.
“We’ve been worried. The doc says you’re gonna be okay though.”
Saunders nodded. “Kanger killed Cooper.”
Hanley’s green eyes clouded as anger threatened to erupt. “I know.” He placed a hand on Saunders’ arm. “I know.” He cleared his throat. “What happened to Kanger?”
Saunders continued on as if he hadn’t heard the question, “He killed another GI, too, a Private Condi. Murdered at least three men in one day, lieutenant…”
“I know, Saunders. What happened to him?”
“He’s dead.” The slight grin on Saunders’ face was unmistakable.
Saunders shook his head. “No. No, that’s the beauty of it. His own people killed him.” Saunders smiled, and chuckled, then winced as the movement caused pain to spike through his leg.
“Take it easy. Did Kanger shoot you?”
Saunders didn’t answer, just nodded, his eyes closed again.
“Alright. You get some rest, Sergeant. I’ll talk to the doctor about when you can get out of here.”
Saunders was already asleep and didn’t reply.
Hanley retrieved his helmet from the floor and stood. Loder took his place and began sponging the sarge with cool water again. Hanley reached a hand out to Loder’s shoulder. “Thanks again, Loder.”
Loder didn’t turn around, just nodded and continued his work.
Hanley turned to Doctor Gordon. “How long you think he’ll be here?”
“Oh, just a few more hours. We’re sending him to battalion aid once this fever breaks. I’ve already ordered the ambulance. Hell, we’ll send him even if it doesn’t break. We’re not equipped to keep anyone more than twenty-four hours. Frankly, Lieutenant, I’m out of everything. Del and I are working with sticks ‘n glue ‘round here. Coffee?”
They made their way through the cluttered room back to the table that the doctor used as a desk. There was an old, very battered coffeepot that looked like it was a relic from World War I, but the aroma of the coffee was sweet. Hanley realized for the first time that he had taken off this morning with no breakfast, not even a cup of coffee.
Gordon handed Hanley a steaming cup and sat in the old wooden chair behind the table. There was no chair for Hanley, so he perched on the edge of some wooden shipping crates. From the way they rocked, Hanley could tell they were empty.
“The army, in its infinite wisdom will send us all the coffee and rations we need. It’s the medical supplies that seem to be the hitch.”
Hanley saw the dark circles under Gordon’s eyes, and the deep sigh as he settled his chair back against a tent pole.
“How long you been on duty, Doctor?”
Gordon opened his eyes, gazed at the lieutenant and then closed them again. “I came on yesterday afternoon around four.” He opened his eyes and rocked forward. “What’s that in military time?”
Hanley suppressed his smile. “Sixteen hundred, sir.”
“Knock off the ‘sir’, Hanley. Call me Gordo, everyone does.” His eyes flickered briefly over to where Loder sat by Saunders’ bed. “Well, except for ol’ Del over there. He just can’t bring himself. Lord knows I’ve tried, but he can’t get past the fact that he thinks I’m his Daddy, General Patton and the Almighty all rolled into one.”
“So, you think you can stay in business?”
“Sure we will. We always do. We may not have supplies, but we always have guys to take care of.” He gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Supplies will be here tomorrow, next day at the latest. Hell, Del and I wouldn’t close up shop as long as we have men coming in. We’ll manage. We always have. We have a great staff of nurses too. The best. Not here right now, though. Battalion made them bug out when it got too hot around here…” Gordon rocked back in his chair again and his voice trailed off.
Hanley’s gaze wandered back across the room to where Saunders lay.
Gordon startled him when he spoke again. “You and Saunders close?”
“Uh, friends, since before Omaha Beach. We were both sergeants before we came over here.” He sipped the steaming hot coffee. “He’s the best NCO I’ve got.”
“Lemme tellya something, Hanley.”
“You’re lucky to have got him back,” Gordon interrupted. “Frankly, I wouldn’ta given a plug nickel for anyone else to do what he did. I talked to him a little last night. He told me where it was he got hit. It’s over four miles from here. I don’t know how in hell he did it. He couldn’t tell me either, didn’t remember some of it. Then when he did make it here, some yahoo buck private shot at him out at one of the outposts. It’s a freakin’ miracle he didn’t hit him. Probably only missed cuz it was so dark.” Gordon muttered under his breath, “Stupid little prick.” Gordon slumped back in his chair. “Anyway, he’s one lucky son-of-a-bitch.”
Hanley leaned forward and set the empty coffee mug on the table. “It’s been my experience, Captain, that Sergeant Saunders makes his own luck most of the time.” He stood and put his helmet on his head. “But you’re right, he is lucky too. He’s come through more scrapes than any ten men I know. You take good care of him.”
“Count on it, lieutenant.”
Hanley saluted. Gordon waived him off with a grin, settled back again and closed his eyes. Hanley wended his way through the cots and stood briefly behind Loder. Saunders looked relaxed and seemed comfortable although he was too pale. Hanley had seen him in worse shape. Hanley patted Loder’s shoulder and turned and left the tent without a word.
Outside, Hanley once again folded his long legs into the inadequate vehicle and started the motor. He paused to look back at the hospital tent. The camp was beginning to wake up now. Soldiers and medical personnel were stumbling out of their tents, shacks and foxholes, to begin another day.
The tent itself, so humble and ravaged on the outside, so full of caring and unselfish devotion on the inside. Hanley smiled as he drove away slowly, deep in his thoughts.
Saunders was skilled and smarter than most. That much was a given. But he was also, as the doctor had said, one lucky son-of-a-bitch. If anyone had an angel on his shoulder, it was the leader of first squad, second platoon. He literally fell into the hands of a devoted team of medics. This whole affair could so easily have gone so wrong on so many levels and in so many ways
The haven that Saunders had stumbled into could easily have proven his end if one buck private had better aim. The doctor and his orderly could have been jaded jackasses, get ‘em in, get ‘em out, let battalion do the real work.
Hanley glanced back at the aid station. Those two in there gave everything they had, and then they gave some more. Sometimes they did it on shear know-how and guts, without the tools of their trade.
Heroes weren’t only found at the front, in the foxholes, tanks and bunkers. Heroes could be found in dingy tents, brandishing nothing more deadly than a syringe of Morphine and a thermometer. As he sped up and took the first curve in the road, Hanley vowed silently to give Doc a pat on the back when he got back home.